I have a friend who is a child psychoanalyst. He is in his fifties, has a great deal of experience in his field, and belongs to one of the most prestigious psychoanalytic institutes in the United States.
When I mentioned Charlotte's Web to him, his face fell and his voice sunk to a whisper. "I read that book when I was eight years old and I cried for three days."
"When Charlotte died, I cried for three days!" He won't be reading that one to his kids.
When I was in third grade, I read the book after my mother bought it for me at my school's book fair. I treasured it and Stuart Little because I had selected them myself, because they were hardcovers and came in a fancy box, and because she she actually bought them for me when I was sure she'd say "no."
I loved the illustrations. I loved the story. I don't remember crying when Charlotte died, although I know I must have been sad. I felt sorry when the book ended.
Armed with my friend's reminiscences, I proceeded with caution while reading Charlotte's Web to my sons, then ages eight and six, ready to reassure them that Charlotte lives a full life, has babies, and experiences the satisfaction of achieving her main goal, the salvation of Wilbur. I even bought a children's book, David L. Rice's Lifetimes,
which details the life cycles of a number of plants, animals, and insects, ranging from giant sequoias that last around 2,000 years to mayflies, who live only one day. I wanted to be able to document that Charlotte lived a long life for her species.
My boys never asked about Charlotte or her death. Taking me completely by surprise, they asked why the goose lays eight eggs, but one of them never hatches.
We were all walking uphill to the tram stop when the boys started discussing the scene in the book when the baby geese are born. Then came,
"Why doesn't that egg hatch?" I had the answer the goose gives herself all ready: "I don't know. It's a dud, I guess."
But they were not satisfied.
"That's just something that happens in nature sometimes."
"Did that ever happen to you, Mommy?"
Now came the moment where I didn't want to answer. If I tell the truth, I'll scare them, I thought. If I don't, I'm lying. What good answer could I give?
"Yes," I said. "It did."
"That is just one of those things. Sometimes an animal or a baby just stops growing, and no one knows why."
Is that the answer I should have given? It certainly had them talking. "The one that didn't live!" is a phrase I have heard more than once.
"Besides," I told them, thinking up a distraction too late, "That goose egg turns out to be really important. Because of that egg, Charlotte gets saved from an untimely death: Avery tries to whack her out of her nest with a stick, but falls backward onto Wilbur's trough, under which lies a goose egg that never hatched. The stink of rotten egg drives Avery out of the barn." A friend of mine leaned toward lying or distraction, disapproving when she learned I'd told the kids the truth. But my hunch is that children ask questions like this when they already know the answer. They must have picked up, at some time and in some way, that I'd experienced a loss and felt sad about it. My younger son had not been born yet when I had my miscarriage, but the eldest was a year old, and I'd had to hire a sitter for the day in order to go to the doctor, and he must have noticed that I wasn't feeling good and wasn't available. In fact I'd been doubled over with cramps so bad they made me vomit in the bathroom, and he'd been alone for about fifteen minutes of that. He may have been watching Barney, at the time, but he probably realized something was up. Death is a shocker and a taboo topic because most people living in Western industrialized countries don't see much of it. My daughter cried when Charlotte died. She is almost nine years old, and "it's so sad, Mommy!" I couldn't find the Lifetimes book the night I finished reading her Charlotte's Web, and had to read her a page of a Beverly Clearly Ramona book--Ramona's endlessly amusing misadventures distracted her. But my daughter did not cry for three days, and I think it would have been a mistake to pretend that Charlotte comes back to life. I told her all the things I had been planning to tell the boys about Charlotte, and I told her that death is a part of life. I could see from the look on her face how unfair that was, so I moved on to Charlotte's babies and life going on.